ST. PETERSBURG — You know that Freefall Theatre is going to do something different with Shakespeare's tragedy of crazy young love, right down to punctuation of the title: Romeo + Juliet.
But fear not, traditionalists. Director Eric Davis' fast-paced production is actually pretty straightforward, as long as the idea of a woman playing Tybalt, the Capulets' fearsome duellist, is not too jarring. And why should it be? After all, in Shakespeare's day, Juliet was played by a boy.
Freefall takes not only the updated title from the 1996 Baz Luhrmann movie, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers, but also the edgy atmosphere. The striking set by Matt Davis (the director's brother) is like a cross between a warehouse and a condo tower with a metal catwalk and a pair of staircases. Portraits of the play's characters line the upper wall, a helpful touch since each of the eight actors, except those playing Romeo and Juliet, has multiple roles.
Deepening the post-modern effect, Scott Daniel's costume design puts almost everybody in black. It is all a long way from Renaissance Verona.
Sarah McAvoy's Juliet is suitably young looking — the Capulet daughter is "not yet 14" — but she brings a vein of girlish steel to the role, stamping her foot and flouncing around in defiance of her family. The Shakespearean language can be cumbersome, but McAvoy rises to the occasion when it counts, such as Juliet's soliloquy to Romeo ("Take him and cut him out in little stars"), delivered barefoot from a circular plexiglass platform.
Two powerful moments are Juliet's meeting with Roxanne Fay's superb Nurse, who, grasping a rope-ladder, tells of Tybalt's death and Romeo's exile; and a knock-down-drag-out encounter between Juliet and her controlling, abusive father (a volcanic Gene D'Alessandro).
As is not uncommon in stagings of Romeo and Juliet, the Romeo of Jesse LeNoir pales next to his vehement young lover, though LeNoir has the romantic good looks for the role. And the chemistry between the two brings to mind the Mary Chapin Carpenter hit Passionate Kisses, which probably dates me. Davis' music is more contemporary, ranging from electronica to punk rock to new age piano.
Mercutio is played as drunken hothead by Michael Shenefelt, who displays great manic energy in his Queen Mab speech. Matt Lunsford is the oily Paris. Chris Crawford shines in a trilogy of well-spoken roles: Benvolio, Balthasar, Friar John.
As Tybalt, Jennifer Christa Palmer is lethal in the fight scenes (expertly choreographed by Blake Braswell), and as Lady Capulet, she exudes the restless sexual discontent of an unhappy wife.
For diehard Shakespeareans, a production of Twelfth Night opened this week and runs through Nov. 18 at FSU Center for Performing Arts in Sarasota. It is performed by second-year students from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training and directed by Greg Leaming. $28 and $29, with 50 percent off advance student tickets purchased in advance. (941) 351-8000; asolorep.org.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.